Leading College Counseling During a Unique Decision Season

Beth Ann Burkmar has been the Director of College Counseling at George School for over five years. She finds great pride in her work supporting students and families through the delights and challenges of the college process. “The joy of each meeting and each interaction with a student is watching them grow before your eyes, to see where they are at the beginning of the process and to see how their thinking evolves by the end,” said Beth Ann.

College Counseling at George School is woven into the fabric of the student and academic experience. College counselors start meeting with students during sophomore year to begin to get to know them and assist them with their course planning. The first question Beth Ann always asks every student during their first meeting she has with them each year is always the same. “‘Tell me about yourself’ is often the first question a student will be asked in a college interview. It’s a bit of an intimidating question. Students will ask me ‘well, what do you want to know?’ or ‘where should I start?’ It’s a great way to help get students comfortable with the idea of talking about themselves,” she explained. “A sophomore will answer my question in one way and the answer completely evolves by the junior year. As a junior, a student has a stronger sense of who they are, which unfolds into their senior year when you get a more robust response.”

“College is an emotional process and we know we cannot block out the noise, but we try to help students and parents manage that noise with good information and guidance,” continued Beth Ann. “The trend that we are seeing during these unusual times of COVID-19 is that students are applying nationally and internationally to more colleges, often out of fear of the unknown, especially after not having been able to physically set foot on campuses this past year. Because so many schools are test optional, applications have soared. Students know that applications are up, so they are applying to more schools, in the hopes of increasing their chances. However, we know that applying to more colleges does not increase one’s chances of admission—applying to the right fit colleges from the start is a stronger and healthier strategy.”

“We continue to drive the point home to students that the college search is still a reflective process and that it is important to find the best fit,” said Beth Ann. “Stress levels are higher and decision paralysis might be a more prevalent aspect of this decision season. Colleges are being more cautious, because they too cannot predict the yield, and waitlists are deeper which means that anxiety may linger into June instead of the usual May 1 decision deadline. Students should focus on diving into their accepts, and if they are on a waitlist, choose one or two schools and to be intentional in pursuing a school. My advice is to let go of waitlisted schools that are not one of their top three choices.”

The landscape of the admissions process is constantly changing, especially this past year as colleges and universities had to pivot to virtual offerings due to the pandemic. Beth Ann is extremely proud of the success College Counseling found in shifting to online programs. They worked as a team to create new events designed to virtually connect with students and their families. “Last year, in March when Covid-19 shifted our lives to a virtual format, our philosophy in helping students and parents did not change, but the process had to,” explained Beth Ann. “For the Class of 2021, this past summer should have been filled with college visits. However, that did not happen because of campus restrictions, so for the first time ever, we experimented with a virtual college fair. Since then, we have found that colleges have invested more in their virtual presence. For the Class of 2022, we launched our first Virtual College Tour.”

“During spring break, we took our juniors across the country and gave them a chance to see how different colleges present information in the virtual format,” continued Beth Ann. “The idea behind the initiative was to not only give students a chance to visit, but to give them the tools to build a framework of navigating the virtual experience to determine which formats they connected with most whether by way of information sessions, sitting in on a student panel, or by joining a class. We showed them different ways in which they can engage. We also had three amazing GS alums join us virtually at their colleges, which was a genuine highlight for the Class of 2022!”

Other initiatives have grown out of the constraints of the pandemic. “We have continued with our small group seminars but launched an evening program series, running February to June, with a special focus on topical and timely issues in the college decision process. This evolved out of the virtual pivot but has turned out to be a great vehicle to connect and share important information and to connect with students and their families,” said Beth Ann. “College Counseling plans to carry over much of what we learned through this experience even after things return to more of a normal.”

“George School has the best College Counseling Team; the expertise of the group of our counselors, supported by the amazing Terry Tuttle, makes coming to George School not a job to me, but a calling. We want families to know they are supported by their counselor, and a team that is fueled by the desire to learn what we can do to best help George School students and then share that learned knowledge with each other to best support them. I am excited to continue guiding students and their families through this exciting process as students think about new beginnings in their journey beyond George School.”